[Feature] How fan service can attract or repel an audience, and how to tell the difference

There’s a misconception that feminists believe any and all fan service is always bad. But in this feminist’s opinion, fan service goes wrong when it interrupts the mood of the show.

Take Keijo!!!!!!!!, my guilty pleasure of this anime season, in which girls don skimpy swimsuits, study “asstronomy,” and use their ample buttocks to knock each other out. I love comedies and over-the-top action, and I knew instantly that I’d find this entire premise hilarious. I love that Keijo!!!!!!!! knows itself. It knows exactly why we’re watching and doesn’t try to be anything else.

Sometimes fan service, defined here as the act of giving the fans exactly what they want, hits the mark. Keijo!!!!!!!! is one of those instances, dishing out exactly what it promised. The same goes for Free!, which advertises—and delivers—on plenty of male skin. And for an example of how fan service isn’t always sexual, let’s bring up a truly wild mecha anime, GaoGaiGar, which is undeniably gratuitous with its slick giant robot battles and rewarding explosions.

Fan service can be exciting, sexy, fun, or all three—when it’s implemented well. I recently enjoyed Monster Musume, the unlikely and over-the-top tale of an everyman who is compelled to care for a menagerie of mythical half-women who are all crazy for him. It was a comedy, and often a surprisingly sexy one. Yes, I get that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to watch a snake girl try on lingerie or meet a dominatrix spider lady, but nobody is going to go into Monster Musume without getting exactly what the show’s premise implies.

Meanwhile, I was extremely put off by certain parts of God Eater. This video game series turned anime is known for its unusual, beastial enemy designs, its post-apocalyptic futurescape, and its stunning, almost painterly art. So I was extremely bothered by the anime’s constant visual focus on some female characters’ breasts. Major Amamiya is portrayed in the games and parts of the show as a competent leader and combatant, but we see more of her breasts than her face. I’m not saying that strong women can’t be sexy, but it seems as if the show is undercutting itself, leaving me pondering its jarring camera angles instead of immersing myself in its story. “Wait, didn’t you just say you liked Monster Musume, which was full of boobs?” Yes, but have we considered that there’s a time and a place for boobs, and a serious war drama isn’t it?

When I use the term “fan service” in a derogatory way, it’s not because I hate fan service, far from it! It’s because I am critiquing the creator’s understanding of what type of content actual serves fans of a show. When the girls of Keijo!!!!!!!! flaunt their considerable assets, it’s totally in line with the story. But when an otherwise serious show suddenly points the camera at a female character’s panties, it’s saying several unfortunate things:

  1. The creators have no confidence in their product. It reeks of self-doubt on the storyteller’s part. “Don’t like our storyline? Let’s toss in some skin just in case.”
  2. The creators don’t know why we’re watching, and are hoping to compensate for that with unasked-for sex appeal, ultra-violence, etc. It’s tone-deaf.
  3. In the case of female skin, the creators may believe that this is the only way to make women interesting. “She’s a magic-wielding soldier from the future, but if you still think that’s boring, take a look at her boobs.”

Imagine you’re watching Dragon Ball Z. Goku is launching into his Kamehameha attack and the camera goes closer, closer… until it lines right up at his crotch. To me, that would say “Fans, we realize this is a real yawn, so let’s throw in some sex appeal to spice things up.” This would be ridiculous because it would intentionally pull viewers out of the story. It would be ridiculous because Dragon Ball Z already HAS fan service—depicting the craziest attacks possible. Adding gratuitous sexuality on top of that would just take away from that.

Fan service can often be the product of sloppy storytelling: give the fans what they think they want in order to compensate against larger issues. Not all fan service is bad. But the fan service that works for one show isn’t going to serve the fans of another.

If I turn on Gundam, I want to see some robot explosions, complete with twisted metal carnage. And if I turn on Keijo!!!!!!!! and don’t see a “Butt Guillotine,” I’m going to be disappointed. Giving fans what they want is awesome. The problem is creators often don’t know what that is.

This may seem like a surprising proposal from a Monster Musume fan, but it’s time for anime to stop relying on fan service as an all-purpose Band-Aid. It simply doesn’t work in every show. For me, the shower scenes in Izetta the Last Witch feel as out of place as if the characters in Yuri!!! On Ice punctuated their skating routines with Michael Bay style explosions. For fan service to be successful, it has to align with the audience’s expectations.

What is a show advertising in its promos, its  opening credits, its first episode? Did we come to the show for a space opera and get butts instead? Did we come for butts and get a straight-laced period drama? Part of the reason AniFem exists is because there’s very little you can do to verify the absence of fan service other than watch the show, so some of the reviews here attempt to remedy that by warning fans in advance. That shouldn’t have to be the case! Certain art styles and storytelling cues should be enough to let us know who a show is for, and who is going to be completely put off by surprise fanservice.

Of course, this means admitting that not every anime show has something for everyone—and being OK with that. I’d rather see shows go all out to please their intended audiences than dilute themselves for a chance at a wider one, especially by using fan service aimed specifically at just a portion of viewers who may or may not be in that audience.

Give us our boobs, butts, and blow-outs, but signal them in the stories first. That way those of us who like that kind of thing can gravitate to it, and those of us who’d rather go without that type of fanservice can find other shows to watch. Otherwise it’s less likely to be a welcome surprise than an unpleasant one.

 

Lauren Orsini is a Gundam pilot who writes about geek culture at Forbes, geek careers at Otaku Journalist, and reviews at Anime News Network. She lives in an apartment full of Gunpla in Washington, DC.

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